The expected spike in police reports due to domestic violence during the COVID-19 stay-at-home order never happened, and that has officials in New Jersey worried. 

“It's not that we think that incidents are actually down, but that it's just more difficult to seek out that help,” said Anna Martinez, director of the New Jersey Division on Women, which provides services to reduce domestic violence. “Isolation is already a tool used by the abuser. And now this just gives abusers more control and a sense of forced isolation due to the stay-at-home order.” 

Martinez and legal advocates say the pandemic has just made it harder for victims to obtain help (advocates in New York also see this challenge). It can be difficult just to make a private phone call. And even though shelters are open, the pandemic has made group living risky.  But community service organizations are hearing from victims who are seeking help with food, rent, or other issues.

“We had one case of a mother with three young kids that was scared of even going to be tested because she didn't want him to know that she could be sick,” said Beatriz Oesterheld, director of The Community Affairs and Resource Center in Asbury Park, N.J. “So we had to pay for a taxi and take her to be tested because she had no transportation.”

The organization primarily serves the Latinx community, which faces even more problems seeking protection during the pandemic. That’s because a temporary restraining order, which keeps an abuser away with the threat of mandatory arrest, is now only available from the local police. Before COVID-19, about half of all TROs were through the civil court system. But that’s not currently available. 

“There are many reasons why victims don't want to get law enforcement involved in their life,” said Patrica Perlmutter of Partners for Women and Justice, a nonprofit law firm that serves survivors of domestic violence. She says victims may not trust the police or may want to stop the abuse without putting their partner in jail. 

“They may be dependent on the abuser for financial support. They may be undocumented and fear of deportation and they want to control their lives,” Perlmutter said.

Listen to Nancy Solomon's radio story for WNYC:

The courts aren’t issuing temporary restraining orders, but they are holding online video-conferencing for final restraining orders. These are hearings that either make those restrictions permanent or lift the TRO. The final restraining order involves witness testimony before a judge. Perlmutter says the online video conference poses a host of problems. 

“They lack privacy to testify about very private information that they might not want their children to hear, especially because sometimes they are testifying about the children's father,” Perlmutter said. “We know that there's a digital divide, that the lowest income litigants don't have access to reliable phones, they run out of minutes. They may not have access to reliable WiFi.”

Also, these video conferences don’t provide the same security of a courtroom: There’s no way to know whether a witness for the accused is listening off camera before giving their own testimony. In March, at the beginning of the stay at home order, Partners for Women and Justice asked the New Jersey state courts to reverse their priorities: stop issuing final orders and start issuing temporary ones. 

But, so far, nothing has changed. 

“The reality is that we're in this public health crisis,” said Judge Glen Grant, chief administrative director of the New Jersey state courts. 

Grant says the courts are dealing with aging technology, balancing the needs of public health and public safety, trying not to create a massive backlog and protecting the right of the accused to a speedy trial. Because under the TRO,  the accused partner has to move out, and could potentially lose their job and contact with their children. 

“It would really turn our constitutional system on its head to say a person can singly make an accusation and that person, no matter how long the crisis may exist, has the right to stay in that house,” Grant said. 

The judge says the courts have been trying to get civil hearings for TRO’s up and running, but he doesn’t know when, or if, that will happen.  

Despite the pandemic, services and protections are available. If you or anyone you know needs help, call the new jersey domestic violence hotline 1-800-572-SAFE (7233). New York City’s domestic violence hotline can be reached at 800-621-HOPE (4673). More resources are available at nyc.gov/NYCHOPE.